Don’t know? Then don’t explain.

In a previous blog, I asked when should one try to explain what underpins the scientific or magic devices in the story? My first attempt at an answer covered, at least part of “never”. That might seem to be something of a cop-out, and one could argue that leaving out explanations cannot help develop the plot. Nevertheless, there are times when “never” is a good idea for the author, even if not for the story. An obvious example is when there is a real explanation, but the author is not on top of it.

The purpose behind an explanation is to engage the reader. If the reader accepts what is put to them, then the explanation helps the reader to understand why the plot works, it might add colour to the story for those interested (in murder stories, quite a few people know the characteristics of arsenic now and so might recognize the symptoms before the murder becomes obvious) and in addition, it might give the reader some interesting additional information. It is even possible to convey a message, although whether it gets through is another matter. In my ebook Puppeteer, I put in an argument against hydrogen as a motor fuel by having two pieces of terrorism caused by having hydrogen pipes shot. Hydrogen is the most readily leaky fuel known, and when mixed with air in a very wide range of proportions, it is explosive. So, I used the resultant explosions as the starting point for certain thefts. I also mentioned in passing that filling a car with petrol cost a thousand dollars, which I hope conveys what everyone is looking at if society does not do something about finding replacement fuels for oil.

However, there is a very good reason for an author not to explain if he or she is not on top of whatever it is. I recall once reading a thriller by, if I recall correctly, Tom Clancy and the hero creeps up and immobilizes a guard by spraying him with, . . .  wait for it . . . dimethyl sulphoxide (DMSO). Oh dear! Anyone who knows anything about DMSO will know at once that this would annoy the guard because, amongst other things, the usual DMSO has a bit of a smell to go with it, and in any case, who wants to be sprayed with some unknown liquid? That might well encourage the guard to raise the alarm, shoot the sprayer, beat the living daylights out of the sprayer, or some combination. But whatever else it does, it will not immobilize anyone. Clancy did get one thing right: DMSO passes rapidly through the skin. Once upon a time it was used for rubbing down athletes, for muscle relaxation, but after a while that was banned because there is potential trouble with eyes with prolonged such use. Accordingly, in this world where no warning is too strong (at least to avoid the downside of litigation when someone inevitably does the most stupid thing imaginable) every now and again you see serious warnings about “don’t let this touch the skin”. So, as I said, anyone who knew anything about DMSO would get an immediate release of tension and lean back either laughing, or shaking the head. Not the desired outcome.

Sane scientists are OK in fiction!

I saw a recent blog extolling the virtues of “mad scientists” to drive plots. How about a plug for sane scientists? There is no reason why science has to be insane to be interesting. That does not mean that science has to be “good”. In fact, scientific knowledge is neither good nor bad; it is what you do with it that counts. Doing bad things with it is excellent plot material, because as my blog has been trying to say, science is not the plot; the plot is what people do. The simplest example I can think of is the murder mystery. For many of them, poison is a key ingredient, and you do not have to be insane to invent poison. In fact nature invented the best ones itself, and surely nature is not going to be termed insane? So, suppose the author is going to introduce poison into the plot. In terms of my previous blog on “explaining”, the question is raised, how far should the author go with explaining the nature of the poison? More to the point, why?

 There are two options here, and the first is to name the poison and describe the symptoms. There is a very good reason regarding plot to do this, because the perceptive detective, or the individual such as Mr S. Holmes who shows up the not very perceptive detective, can see the effects and deduce what has happened. It also allows some character play between those who see the clue and those who do not. Of course a little care here is needed too. The classic identifier of hydrogen cyanide is the smell of bitter almonds, but there is a small per centage of the population who cannot smell it. That too could be a plot element. So, naming the poison could be a good idea, if the author is on top of it. Good research helps! On the other hand, if the author does sloppy research, it shows. So the price of buying into this option is to do good research, and one problem of course, is that if the source of the knowledge comes from the web, it may not be correct, or sufficiently complete.

 The second option could be called “the custard’s way out”. As an example, in my ebook Troubles, I had someone poison the main character with a “white powder” that had certain properties. The poisoner was ordered to do this and was given the powder, and since the poisoner had no idea what the poison was, there was no need to tell the reader. That way you get around the problem of making a mistake. At first sight, this may seem to lose plot opportunities, but I think it can also create some. Back to Troubles, the poisoner is taken to dinner, he leaves the table, returns, consumes some food, then he is shown a small empty vial with traces of white powder. Now, had he known what the first one was, he may have done some research and might know what its taste was like, or something else about it, but with no idea he panics. (This time it was not poison, but . . .) So without knowing what it is, that itself can be part of the plot. Later, once again there was a white powder. Now, the reader is wondering, and very soon a conclusion some readers will jump to is confirmed. So, in my opinion there are virtues in not explaining, provided the non-explained issue is not left dangling. The issue is not poison, but the characters that come into contact with it. In Troubles, there was another issue too. The poisoning was not really the main part of the plot, but rather a small matter at the end to remove certain characters, and to bring the major villain to an end, not due to poison (although that was applied) but rather the main feature was his character defect that got him into the position where he could be poisoned.

Returning to my main point, poisoning is not “good”, but the users were not insane. My personal view is that literature thrives on exploring evil in plots, but I am less happy with insanity. Literature tries to give messages, or even lessons, but by definition, insanity teaches nothing.